The Falls of the Ohio

An Indiana State Park

Jeffersonville, IN

March 12, 2000

I was sitting around a campfire, as I often do, with several other local campers discussing the area in and around Louisville, Ky., when one old-timer remarked that if it weren't for the Falls of the Ohio river, this area would probably be just another meandering stretch of river. Waterfalls in the Ohio River? Now that was a new one on me. I had lived in Cincinnati on the river for several decades and had always assumed that there were no obstructions to the river system between Pennsylvania and New Orleans. The next day we set off to find these little-known falls. Our travels took us to the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Jeffersonville, IN. An Interpretive center sits on the bank of the river and tells the story of thousands of years along the river, and yes, right out in front of us, unfortunately under several feet of water as the Ohio was running quite high that day, are a ragged series of rocks and boulders which, during low water cause a cascading sheet of water to rush over them, creating the effect of a small but violent waterfall. Navigation through this barricade has always been non-existent. Surprise, surprise, but there is more. Ancient history abounds here, I mean really ancient history. Before the coming of the ice age, this entire area was one vast tropical inland sea, filled to the brim with all kinds of sea life, especially a large assortment of shell fish. Thousands of years of existence created a thick sea bed of limestone with millions of these sea creatures embedded as fossils in the forming rock. The last Great Ice Age saw the glaciers reach right up to the land making up the Ohio River. Runoff from the receding ice created the Ohio Valley by literally ripping up the ground and rocks with sheer water pressure. What was left was a gigantic gouge in the limestone bottom of the once tranquil sea, exposing the fossils for all to see. The park is now one of the greatest archeological dig areas in the nation, as is indicated by the skeleton of a great woolly mammoth standing just inside the front door of the interpretive center. Each room of the center covers a different time period for the Falls. If I thought that finding falls on the Ohio was going to shake my understanding of the area I been living in, I was soundly shocked to find that the very heart of history of this country was being challenged. It would seem plausible that perhaps Christopher Columbus was not the first European to discover the "New World". According to legend, the first white settlers at the Falls of Ohio may have been Welshmen in the year 1170 A.D. This story places European settlers in America over 300 years before Christopher Columbus sailed to the new world. Historical records indicate that in 1167 A.D. Madoc, one of the 17 sons of Owen Gwyneth, Prince of Wales, set sail to explore the western seas. Their expedition led them to a promising new land. Madoc later returned to Wales to gather people who would join him in establishing a colony in this new land. Madoc, his followers and as many as ten ships with supplies sailed west, never to return. It is thought that the colonists sailed along the North American coast to the Gulf of Mexico. There they entered Mobile Bay in Alabama and made their way across to the Mississippi River and then up the Ohio River to the Falls of Ohio. Early European and American explorers related stories of Welch speaking Indians living near the Falls. General George Rogers Clark, the older brother of William Clark of the Louis and Clark Expeditions into the Louisiana Purchase lands, was told by a son of Chief Tobacco of the Shawnee Indians that long ago many white men had been killed in a great battle at the Falls. Actually, it was General George Rogers Clark who founded Clarksville on a thousand acres of the 150,000 acre tract the Virginia Assembly granted him and his troops in recognition of General Clarks' efforts in the Revolutionary War. The town was chartered in 1783, and General Clark built a home there in 1803, the only home he ever owned. From it, on a site overlooking the Ohio, he could see Louisville, which he also founded. From there, he wrote frequent letters to the United States government seeking reimbursement of the sums he had personally advanced to pay and supply Revolutionary War troops. The famous Lewis and Clark expedition sought men and supplies in Clarksville and in other towns at the Falls before starting the journey westward in 1803 to explore the Louisiana Purchase. Early in the history of commercial travel on the Ohio, a channel was built on the Kentucky side which serves today as a gateway around the falls. It was all a surprise to me.

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